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Monday, October 30, 2006


Vampire Blog-a-Thon: Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu

(This post is part of the Vampire Blog-a-Thon at The Film Experience. More ghoulishness celebrating Halloween's favorite bloodsucker can be found there.)

Bram Stoker's vampiric antihero has rarely been taken seriously by filmmakers, and even less often by actors; the savagery of the tale is almost always either overblown (Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman) or over-romanticized (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt). But two exceptions come to mind. The first was, of course, the enigmatic Max Schreck, who turned F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu into a disturbing, jarring masterpiece. The second was the star of Werner Herzog's 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre...one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, Klaus Kinski.

Much has been written about Kinski and his volatile relationship with Herzog. (He starred in Herzog's best films, including Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck. In production on most of them, the director and actor physically threatened to kill one another.) Kinski, as the terrifying Count Orlok, brings a psychological depth and physical complexity to vampiric iconography that has never been repeated, while Herzog uses the scenic countryside to extend the metaphors of isolation and decay. With the damsel in distress being played by the superb French star Isabelle Adjani, the film is a slow-burning, dream-inducing nightmare.

Kinski felt incredibly exposed in this performance, due to his shaved head. He wrote the following in his production diary:
"Four weeks before shooting starts, I have to fly there for costuming. And this is where I shave my skull for the first time. I feel exposed, vulnerable, defenseless. Not just physically (my bare head becomes as hypersensitive as an Open wound) but chiefly in my emotions and my nerves. I feel as if I have no scalp, as if my protective envelope has been removed and my soul can't live without it. As if my soul had been flayed. At first I go outdoors only when it's dark (I've been through that with The Idiot, but this is much, much worse). Besides, I wear a wool cap all the time even though it's spring. You may think, "So what. Some guys are bald." But the two have absolutely nothing to do with one another. What I mean is the simultaneous metamorphosis into a vampire. That nonhuman, nonanimal being. That undead thing. That unspeakable creature, which suffers in full awareness of its existence."
When I directed a stage adaptation of Fall of the House of Usher in 2004, Kinski's performance became the inspiration and model for our interpretation of Roderick Usher, the elder brother who brings doom upon his family. We watched Kinski's delicate mannerisms, his wasting away, his rapid changes in volume and inflection. We stole his talon-like fingernails (but not the bald head), and his obsessive hunger. It worked again, just like it had for Kinski...like a charm.

In Nosferatu, Herzog and Kinski never fall back on horror cliches. The scares here have a visceral, tangible texture that is more reminiscent of opera than of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Decidedly European in rhythm and in style, Nosferatu is the thinking man's Halloween candy.

P.S. - If I had to program a Vampire Film Festival for the Blog-a-Thon, I'd skip Interview and Coppola and pick these seven instead: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979); Nosferatu (1922); Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002); Shadow of the Vampire (2001); Dracula (1931); Dracula's Daughter (1936); and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).



Blogger Bohemian said...

Excellent words by Kinski on that production diary. He did a wonderful job all around.

Nice blog ;)

5/6/09, 7:34 AM  

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